American zoos assist Kabul animals suffering from neglect

RALEIGH, N.C. -- The last time David Jones visited the 100-acre zoo in Afghanistan's capital, he admired bears and mountain goats native to the land as herds of red deer grazed peacefully.

"It was then quite a nice zoo for that part in the world," said Jones, director of the North Carolina Zoo.

But that was 15 years ago.

Today, the number of species at the Kabul zoo has been halved to 19, including a handful of wolves, monkeys, and a lion that was blinded in one eye when an Afghan guerrilla threw a grenade into its cage. The animals' welfare is a low priority of Kabul residents right now who have troubles of their own.

In response to reports about conditions at the zoo, North American zoos and aquariums began a campaign this week to raise $30,000 to keep the Kabul zoo running for the next four to six months. By Friday, the North Carolina Zoological Society had pledges worth $26,000 from 150 donors.

"Some people say, 'Isn't this a bit crazy when we've got all the human problems?'" said Jones. "I think there's ... a much larger appreciation of the animal side of this kind of conflict than what they might think."

A donor who wanted to remain anonymous promised $10,000, and European zoos have also pledged money.

Jones, who visited the Kabul zoo while director of the London Zoo, is coordinating U.S. fund-raising for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. The group is one of several agencies raising money to feed and treat animals, pay keepers' salaries and repair bullet-riddled buildings.

The North Carolina Zoo is working with American and European zoo associations and the World Society for the Protection of Animals to make sure the money reaches its intended destination.

Feeding a lion for $14

One major expense is Marjan, the lion, whose lunch tab of nearly $14 a day is more than many Kabul residents earn in a month. Marjan was injured in the 1990s by a grenade thrown by a guerrilla whose brother had entered the lion's cage the day before and was killed by the lion.

Jones said the Kabul zoo wasn't like what he called the "grotty little menageries" that pass for zoos in other parts of the world.

Built on the Kabul River with help from the zoo in Cologne, Germany, the park was one of the better zoos in the region. It was also one of the few places Afghan women could go with their children during the rule of the Taliban, Jones said.

The zoo's nickel entrance fee generates only about $300 a month, compared to operating costs of $6,000. The zoo's director hasn't taken his $20-a-month salary since July.